EU Unveils Plans to Allow Cellphone Use on Planes

BRUSSELS ~ European regulators opened the way this week for air passengers to use cellphones to talk or text during fights throughout EU airspace as easily as they can on trains.

“From today onwards Europe’s sky is open for business by mobile phone operators,” said European Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr,” in a blow to those who see air travel as a rare chance to avoid being contacted.

However he stressed that the inflight service was not yet generally available and so passengers should still heed the advice of flight crews to switch off phones during flights.

At the moment that luxury is limited to a very few travellers for fear of interfering with the aircraft’s functioning. Some airlines, notably Air France, have begun testing the system.

Selmayr said that the 27 EU member states have six months to comply with the new rules.

“Inflight mobile phone services can be a very interesting new service especially for those business travellers who need to be ready to communicate wherever they are, wherever they go,” EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding said in a statement.

“However, if consumers receive shock phone bills, the service will not take off. I also call on airlines and operators to create the right conditions on board aircraft to ensure that those who want to use inflight communication services do not disturb other passengers,” she added.

Selmayr, Reding’s chief spokesman, said onboard calls would be “a little more expensive” than those on the ground because the planes would need to install their own inflight cellphone network.

He told reporters in Brussels, however, that the competitive marketplace should take care of the price of calls.

“The commission will not interfere with this in the beginning but we will keep a close eye on it,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of a plane full of people all chattering away inflight, he said it would also be up to the airlines to decide how the system was used.

Some airlines are considering only allowing text messages to be sent and received via cellphones while others may ask passengers to keep their phones on silent mode so that they do not ring.

Selmayr said that safety concerns would be addressed by not allowing phones to be used until planes were at least 3,000 feet in the air.

He also stressed that captains would be able to switch off the onboard service if they felt it necessary.

The European Commission is very hopeful that the EU’s neighbors and other friendly states from Iceland to Ukraine will agree to adopt the same system so as to extend its reach.

However, it won’t be available over US airspace, where cellphone calls remain banned and where a different bandwidth is used.

The measures announced by the commission will harmonize the technical and licensing requirements for using mobile phones on board aircrafts.

Under the system, passengers’ phones will be linked to an onboard cellular network connected to the ground via satellite.

The system will at the same time prevent phones from connecting directly to mobile networks on the ground below, thereby ensuring the system does not affect the safety of aircraft or the terrestrial mobile networks.

Harmonizing the technical requirements for the safe inflight use of cellphones will enable the national licenses granted to individual airlines by a member state to be recognized throughout the EU, the commission said.

Therefore, an aircraft registered in France or Spain would be able to offer mobile communication to passengers when flying over Germany or Hungary without additional licensing procedures.

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